"Bacon is the candy of meat."

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Tools of the Trade

I am about the farthest thing from an equipment geek, kitchen or otherwise. I like my tools to be decent quality and to perform their stated purpose well. I am also a fan of tools that can be used for many things -- for example, I use rimmed baking sheets for practically everything, and when I knit, I nearly always do it on circular needles. I just don't have the budget or storage space for a lot of highly specialized, high-end equipment, plus I tend to the skeptical when people start raving that only a certain brand of [whatever] can do the job.

Once in a while I do run into a gadget with a single use that I think is brilliant. Those metal lemon squeezers that are bright yellow (or green for limes). That avocado gadget that has a cutting blade on one end, a pit remover in the middle, and a slicer at the other end -- genius!

But I recently acquired two new pieces of equipment that have given me that "where have you been all my life?" giddiness. Here is credit where credit is due.

Silicone baking mats. Those rimmed baking sheets of mine get a serious workout. I do a lot of roasting and broiling in them, and I've had night after night of big sheets protruding from the sink as I try to soak the stuck-on crud off them. I've used rolls and rolls of parchment paper, which then takes up most of the space in the kitchen compost bin. Also, truth be told, for some reason, buttering cookie sheets is one of my least favorite kitchen tasks. Enter the silicone baking sheets. I did a big salmon filet with teriyaki sauce on one the other night, and the whole thing slid right off, skin and all. No scrubbing fish skin and burnt sugar off the pan for days. I just plop the sheet in the baking pan and that's all the prep I need to do. Looking forward to expanding my collection of these to fit all my pans.

Aeropress coffee maker. I know it's the era of the coffee geek, but though I love a good cup of strong, rich coffee (I tend to drink espresso, often with a little condensed milk stirred in), the last thing I have any interest in is delving into the terroir my beans were grown in, searching out the most perfect grind (or the most expensive, high-tech grinder to achieve it), or studying the ideal water temperature, pouring method, or filtration system. I've tried a number of methods -- basic drip coffeemaker (too big since I'm the only coffee drinker in the house), espresso maker (bulky and fiddly), Keurig (wasteful and too limited), French press (too muddy), and Chemex (charming to look at but hard to keep hot enough). Also, in the mornings, the kitchen tends to be in a bit of chaos, with three kids getting breakfast, school lunches being made, and usually whatever didn't fit into the dishwasher the night before still sitting there forlornly in the sink. Someone had mentioned an Aeropress in conversation, and a coffee geek I know chimed in and raved about it. I knew nothing about it, so I looked it up and was intrigued -- smooth and rich espresso using a small, inexpensive, easy-to-clean handheld device and hot water from the kettle. It was worth a shot.

It's amazing. The device is essentially a large syringe with a filter cap on one end that takes little circles of filter paper (they can be rinsed and reused, if you want). You put in a measure of coffee, pour hot water up to a line, stir briefly, and then press the syringe plunger down slowly over a waiting cup. You can drink it as espresso or add more hot water (or milk) as desired. Cleanup is ejecting the coffee and filter and rinsing the works under the running tap, the end. It's super quick and easy, and makes incredibly rich and smooth coffee out of even indifferent (and variously ground) beans.

I may be about to put the espresso maker into deep storage, which means I will achieve the Holy Grail of MORE COUNTERSPACE.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

How I Won Family Dinner, or Two Thumbs Up

Lucas showing the whole hand.

I have previously mentioned the Lucas Dinner Scale, by which my opinionated middle son rates all meals on a thumbs up-thumbs down system, including all points in between. Two thumbs up is at the top of the scale, with a damning-with-faint-praise rating available of one thumb held at about a 20 degree angle to the floor. It's a tough crowd.

But I've been on a roll for the last week, earning repeated double thumbs. I decided to memorialize it, in case it never happens again.

All your leftovers are belong to me.
On Friday I did baked Salmon Teriyaki, with jasmine rice and edamame. Not as highly ranked on the Lucas Scale, but it's a favorite of Teen Gateau, who likes to flake the salmon and mix it with the rice. These guys never tolerated fish at all when we lived in New York, but now that we're in Vancouver they are becoming more open to it. The leftovers of this went into a very nice salad for my lunch -- greens, a honey-mustard-white balsamic dressing, and some sliced mushrooms I tossed in the dressing before adding to the plate.

Saturday was FONDUE NIGHT. Fondue is a huge family favorite, and I'd neglected to make it since we moved. (I also like to preserve its power to impress by not making it too often). We have a beautiful copper fondue pot on a wrought-iron stand that we bought after seeing similar ones at the wonderful (and apparently late lamented) Fonduementale in Montreal. I return again and again to the classic Swiss cheese fondue with Emmentaler, Appenzeller, and Gruyere with white wine and a splash of Kirschwasser. Since we left all our booze behind when we moved, I didn't feel like dropping 25 bucks on a bottle of Kirschwasser to use a couple times a year, so I successfully substituted some of the brandy my dried cherries have been soaking in for about a month. It added a touch darker color to the final product, but not noticeable to anyone who might have cared, and I think the dish is nicer with that touch of sweetness than without it.

I have a book full of fondue recipes -- Roquefort! Cheddar and Beer! -- but the classic is so mouthwateringly good that I never switch it up. Occasionally, we'll do a meat fondue with hot broth or oil and a selection of sauces and aiolis to dip the food into. The Parmesan-Basil Aioli I served on Christmas Eve would be perfect for this, with chicken or beef, and the kids love a Maple-Soy Glaze with pork. Anyway, after every last bit of cheese was scraped up, every bread cube and slice of pear and green apple was gone, we moved on to a simple chocolate fondue with strawberries, apples, dried apricots, and chunks of pound cake. It's amazing we still had room, but that managed to disappear too.

On Sunday, while the rest of the family was out having a swimming test to sign up for lessons, I cast around the kitchen for something to cook. I had defrosted boneless chicken thighs with the notion in mind to make Chicken Malai Kebabs (a/k/a Chicken Kebab the Builder) but when I went to set up the marinade I discovered that the only plain yogurt in the house was at the back of the fridge and practically unrecognizable as a food product. I shelved that idea for later in the week (in fact, Tiny Fuzzy indignantly asked me tonight why I had not made them yet. People.) What I did have, though, were sufficient ingredients to make a simplified Chicken Mole, with tomato, dark chocolate, cinnamon, clove, onion, garlic, and cayenne. We had that with rice, and got something hovering around one and a half thumbs on the Lucas Dinner Scale. There was enough left, and so much sauce, that for Monday night I simply popped the leftovers in their dutch oven back on the stove and added kidney beans and corn kernels to create a Chicken Mole Stew. The flavors had a chance to develop overnight, and my household full of discerning palates pointed out that next time it could use a little less cinnamon. Noted.

Hello, Joe.
Somehow on Tuesday I managed to get a hankering for Sloppy Joes, which I've made maybe once in my life. My kids like burgers, they like spaghetti and meat sauce, they like sweet and sour meatballs, so I figured this would work. I got some whole wheat buns from the bakery, made a nice thick tangy sauce for the organic ground beef I always have in the freezer from Costco, and served it with salted edamame. Cheers around the table and double thumbs. The meal was a hit, and even better, I had played the "let's bake something!" card when the two younger boys were having simultaneous afternoon hissy fits, and we had a pan of freshly-baked Blondies for dessert. No nuts allowed by the Picky Ones, but somehow we survived. Even easier to make than chocolate chip cookies, and there is something about them I like even better. (One enduring mystery of life here in Canada, though, is why we can get Nestle Qwik but not Tollhouse Morsels, and Hershey's Chip-Its but not Hershey's Syrup.)
Blondies have more fun.
And then tonight we again had major success. For American Thanksgiving, my butcher had made me a very nice rolled and tied boneless turkey breast that they had brined and gave me to carry home in a plastic bag with liquid, like a goldfish at the fair. It was so simple to prepare and so delicious that I decided to put it into the repertoire. All the butcher requires is a little advance notice, so I stopped by yesterday and asked them to put one aside for me. Today I simply laid it on a rack inside a rimmed baking sheet and seasoned it lightly with olive oil, salt and pepper, marjoram, and sage. I put some halved baby potatoes, tossed in olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary into a baking pan and cooked at the same time, and served it all with some steamed stringbeans (also dressed in olive oil, salt, and pepper) and a little gravy I made out of the pan juices, a bit of chicken broth, and a drop of soy sauce, bound with a little cornstarch. Every morsel was gobbled up, and the thumbs were high in the air. I couldn't have pulled this off when I was still working full time in an office with a commute, but since I'm home now to put things in the oven before five (if the meal gets delayed past about 6, the witching hour starts to be upon us), this is a really nice weeknight dinner that feels more special than it really is.

I'm fairly assured that Chicken Kebab the Builder tomorrow will keep the streak alive (I'm going to try marinating cauliflower florets in the same yogurt marinade and roast them alongside, in part of my effort to restore my lower carb routine -- hopefully my waistbands will thank me). However, I'm sure this will be followed by a month of missing the mark entirely. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Hello 2015!

Now that the holiday/birthday frenzy has subsided, I have a few minutes in my day to catch up on necessaries like doing the laundry and cleaning the kitchen (I still haven't gotten up the nerve to clean out the fridge, but given that we moved in August, at least the horrors can only be in the five month old range). And I do want to post about the fantastic meal we enjoyed on New Year's Eve with our friends Sam and Vic, Sam's brother, and his wife.

Like most decrepit seasoned people I know, Mr. Gateau and I are not much into partying hard on New Year's Eve. We like to do something festive, but it tends to center on a cozy meal with friends and/or family. Many years we have had friends with kids come over and had a fondue extravaganza, or even just curled up with some good old movies and consumed fondue and a lot of wine on our own. One of our favorites was the big night of December 31, 1999, when everyone was anticipating some end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it spectacular. We opted to join our friends Doug and Mary in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn (then still a mostly non-gentrified neighborhood that had one little row of upscalish restaurants) at a little bistro. The place was so timeless, we could have been in any city at any time in the last 75 years. At midnight we went outside just to look at the new millennium sky and confirm that the lights hadn't gone out.

This year, we came close to the same wonderful atmosphere, minus the looming catastrophe. We had a late dinner at one of our favorite places, The Oakwood Bistro, which was offering a special (and well-priced) four course menu. The six of us sat at one end of a big communal table that was divided from the party at the other end by a big old KitchenAid mixer filled with dried flowers. The meal was served with dishes for two placed before each pair sitting opposite each other, so I shared with Sam. She and I began with all good intentions to photograph each beautiful course, but the more fun we had the less we remembered to whip out our phones, which I can't say is a bad thing.

Better than the movies.
The meal began with glasses of sparkling wine and a "snack" of big bowls of parmesan truffle popcorn. You haven't had umami until you've had this. Super buttery, we were soon just throwing handfuls of the stuff down our throats, greasy hands be damned. We could probably have done with a smaller serving, but it set the tone for great, fun eating. It was perfect with the dry sparkling wine, and just as wonderful with a round of cocktails. I had a "Buffalo Eat Grapes" made with buffalo trace bourbon, pinot noir syrup, lemon, and bitters. It tasted like a very sophisticated sangria and was a worthy alternative to my favorite drink The Oakwood offers on the summer menu, a take on the Dark & Stormy made with smoked rum and smoked lime.

Three, three, three amuses in one.
Next up was a course called the "Amuse bouche" but went beyond the usual small bite by offering a variety of three amazingly flavorful and inventive hors d'oeuvres. From left, we had a celeriac crisp with foie gras parfait and cranberry powder (this place does a lot with powders and gelees, which could seem a little fussy but they really pack a lot of flavor), a French macaron made of a beet meringue with apple puree and paillot goat cheese, a brilliant savory take on a classic dessert, and a potato nest with truffle sunchoke puree and nettle crumb.

The next course was equally beautiful but we were so intent on eating it that we forgot to photograph it. We were presented with a deep bowl filled with pan-seared scallops in a miso-garlic mushroom broth with roasted king oyster mushroom, black kale dusted cremini crudite, shaved cured egg yolk, hazlenut oil, chicken skin crumble, and nasturtium. The flavors in this dish were fantastic, all that mushroomy, miso umami but a delicacy that was just right for the scallops, punctuated with bits of salty, crunchy, peppery accents.

Bread alone.
Next we received a bread course, which we managed to snap for some reason. I'm not sure I needed to fill up on bread at this point, but the fresh rolls were sprinkled with caraway seeds and salt and served with a deep red smoked paprika butter. So I ate it.

Onto the main course! We all groaned that more food was coming, but I noticed we all ate every bit of it. This was a perfectly prepared grilled rib eye with smoked bone barrow and beet juice, served with thinly shaved winter root vegetables sauteed with cultured tarragon butter, the creamiest possible pomme mousseline, and red amaranth. The beef and its juices were so earthy, while the vegetables had that wonderful summery tarragon taste and the potatoes were utterly decadent. 

Just a little sweet.

And then -- dessert! This we managed to snap before it was too late, and every crumb was gone. This was a take on the Almond Joy bar, a coconut crusted chocolate mousse with raspberry gel, crunchy milk meringue, brown butter ice cream, and lemon balm. I don't even love coconut and chocolate, and I was scraping this off my plate. The brown butter ice cream is something I would drive all day to get, the raspberry gel was sunshine in the mouth, and the milk meringue added an amazing creamy crunch.
A very thoughtful gift.

Before we rolled out the door to drink more Prosecco and eat chocolates while we watched the ball drop with Sam and Vic's folks at home, the restaurant manager thanked us for joining them for the evening and presented us with BREAKFAST! Each couple was given a loaf of cheese bread wrapped in a towel and a brown paper box containing little quince and meringue tarts and two farm eggs. This was such a thoughtful gesture, and we were quite amused in the morning when Baby Gateau climbed into our bed and excitedly told us that there was FOOD! in the dining room, including eggs and "apple pies" which he knew were good because he had stuck his fingers into them to make sure. Oh well, from what I could glean, they were quite delicious, and I very much enjoyed the eggs fried in butter and topped with sauteed shallots and a little red wine vinegar.

It was about as perfect as a New Year's Eve gets, and I hope we can make a tradition out of it.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Live Long and Prosper, Kid

The Ensign (Event Coordination) and Captain in the Captain's Private Dining Room, Starship Enterprise
Today I am the mother of a teenage boy, an amazing milestone in parenting life and the culmination of this year's exhausting trip through Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year's Eve, and two birthdays. I'm looking forward to a few months of simple home cooking after the whirlwind of parties.

Teen Gateau (as he will henceforth be known, at least for the next 7 years) became a Star Trek fanatic sometime during the last year. This was all my husband's fault doing after introducing the lad to the original series via Netflix. The kid has now devoured every piece of Star Trek media he can get his hands on, and I am reminded of his first love, trains, in the way he can make everything about his fixation. I seem to be immune to Star Trek, though most of my friends adore it, but as with the incessant train talk, it's a mother's joy to participate in whatever her kids love. Or something.

It seemed only right and proper, then, to offer him a Star Trek dinner to celebrate his birthday. We researched menu options, and were grateful for the indispensable Tumblr, Food Replicator, which provided clear recipes and inspiration.

Commemorative Menu

At the appointed hour, I dressed in my most Star Trek-like garb (we went with businesslike crew member, circa TNG, instead of 60s Space Babe) and began to welcome the Captain's friends to a private dinner aboard the Starship Enterprise. The decor was minimalist, with small Starfleet emblems placed on the napkin rings.

Food Synthesizer Cubes
Guests were ushered into the reception area, where they were offered Food Synthesizer Cubes (lime Jello jigglers) with their choice of Klingon Bloodwine (Cran-Grape juice with a little orange concentrate to bloody it up) or Romulan Ale (Jones Mixed Berry soda). This particular delegation put away quite a lot of Romulan Ale over the course of the party.

Bloodwine and Romulan Ale

Dinner was served in the Captain's private dining room. A first course of Vulcan Plomeek Broth (beet and carrot broth with smoked paprika and cider vinegar) went over better than I'd thought it would, given the audience of 12 year-old boys. I was called upon to serve seconds, and have had a request to make it again sometime.

Steaming Plomeek Broth

Following the broth, the main dishes were served: Bajoran Larish Pie (beef and vegetable pie with rosemary and thyme) and the most famous Klingon dish of all, Gagh, a revolting concotion featuring live worms. (Since gagh worms are out of season, I was forced to substitute udon boiled in food coloring to make it an unappetizing gray with a chunky mushroom marinara).

Larish Pie
Gagh, Klingon delicacy

For dessert, the Captain was presented with an Earthly delight -- a chocolate layer cake, custom decorated by his father. We had insufficient candles to represent his venerable age, but he was OK with that.

After the celebration, the Captain and his guests retired to the screening room, for a presentation of Star Trek: Nemesis. More Romulan Ale was on offer along with, of course, Jean-Luc Picard's favorite perfect cup of Earl Grey tea. A dish of Gree Worms disappeared as if, well, three 12 year old boys were watching a movie and eating candy.

Gree Worms

And that was that. The Ensign snuck into the kitchen to replace her boots with fuzzy slippers and start mixing up dough for the Captain's requested cinnamon buns for his breakfast banquet, and at one point removed a small alien life-form with the appearance of a four year-old Earthling from his older brother's party.

It appears that a good time was had by all.

The Captain with his visiting delegation of dignitaries from across the Federation